Lessons Learned From Hosting A Virtual Conference


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It turns out that running a live events company during a pandemic is not optimal. Like many other companies, we had to adapt. In the last week of April, we launched tickets for our virtual conference, Social Fresh X.

We moved quickly to host a virtual conference because so many businesses were struggling with how to respond to the coronavirus crisis. They didn’t know what to post, when to post, or what the tone should be.

We gave ourselves 5 weeks, the quickest we’ve ever produced an event.

Our lessons learned from Social Fresh X fall into two main categories: Planning and Platform. Let’s start with Planning.

Virtual Conference Planning

We had 3 key goals for the virtual conference:

  1. Feature talented speakers and quality sessions.
  2. Make the event accessible to businesses in need.
  3. Replicate the quality, intimacy, and community of our live conference.

GOAL 1: Feature talented speakers and quality sessions.

Social Fresh puts a big focus on the quality of sessions for our social media conferences. We put most of our time and attention into crafting our sessions and working directly with speakers.

There were some roadblocks. More speakers declined than usual. Many were overwhelmed with work or family obligations due to the crisis. Completely understandable.

We’re thankful that so many speakers were able to join us, and responded quickly to the timeline. We were able to create presentations and discussions that were timely and useful, including:

  • Empathy As Marketing During COVID – Miri Rodriguez, Storyteller – Microsoft
  • Overcoming Visual Content Challenges – Chad Mitchell, VP Head of Content – TD Bank
  • Future of Marketing Post Coronavirus – Adrian Parker, Global VP of Marketing – Patrón

One benefit of virtual conferences is they allow you to cast a wider net for talent. Speakers did not have to worry about travel and we were able to confirm many talented keynote speakers in a short window.

Getting the right speakers on stage is time intensive, but a task Social Fresh always work hard at, so this piece of the puzzle was in our comfort zone.

GOAL 2. Make it accessible to businesses in need.

We knew there were many businesses that needed help. We did three key things to make sure as many businesses as possible could get access to the event.

First, we created a low-cost tier for attendees to opt-in to keynotes and select session. This was our General Admission ticket level, which included Facebook, Guy Kawasaki, Kara Goldin (CEO of Hint Water), and more.

Second, we made the General Admission ticket free for the first 500 hundred sign ups. No catches. After 500 attendees, the prices for this ticket was $25, still allowing easy access to some of the best sessions of the conference.

TIP: An important technical piece to consider is determining the cost of a free ticket to you as the organizer of a virtual conference. Platforms will have a per-user cost (or an attendee max). For example, we paid a per-user fee for all attendees, including the free tickets.

Third, we offered a Coronavirus Scholarship to anyone who was out of work, furloughed, or otherwise impacted by coronavirus. Dozens of social media pros took advantage of this opportunity.

GOAL 3. Replicate the quality, intimacy, and community of our live conference.

This is the most challenging goal for any virtual conference. It’s not possible to recreate the magic of hallway conversations and happy hour introductions for a virtual conference.

But, there’s a lot you can do to create community interactions for virtual conferences, and some of it can be an improvement on in-person events.

The Power of Live Chat

Virtual conference speakers lose access to the body language and mood of the room that you typically have with an in-person audience.

But, with the live chat feature on most virtual conference platforms you gain a more precise feedback option. Speakers see nuanced questions they can reply to immediately. Speakers can get more detailed responses from attendees in realtime and at a greater scale.

Additionally, the audience can talk to each other, without interrupting a speaker’s flow. All of this adds a level of community to a virtual conference that’s different from an in-person conference, but holds unique value.

Virtual Happy Hours

We hosted two virtual happy hours during our conference. One for all attendees and one for our speakers and VIP ticket holders.

Patrón Tequila was the sponsor for our main happy hour. They provided a brand mixologist for a challenge we titled the #PantryPatronChallenge. The mixologist challenged attendees to make at-home cocktails with whatever they had in their kitchen cupboards. We had a ton of attendees Tweet their creations and Patrón gave out live awards. Big thanks to Adrian at Patrón for this idea and making it such a success.

Our Speaker + VIP happy hour was a group video meeting of 40 speakers and VIP ticket holders. The icebreaker we implemented, a scavenger hunt game, was a big success. Everyone had to try to find simple, but not very common things in their home (or wherever they were). It was a fun way for people to get to know each other without any pressure.

Social Fresh X 2020 – VIP Speaker Happy Hour Zoom

We wanted to have more live networking “happy hour” opportunities, but our bandwidth and platform limitations did not allow for it. There is a lot of opportunity here to make your virtual conference feel special.

Q&A Sessions

In general, the more sessions you can do that allow for live audience questions through chat, Q&A tools, or social media, the better. We had several Q&A sessions built into the event and each of these added energy and connectedness to the event.

There were other community building tactics that we wanted to invest in, but we ran into time constraints or technology limits. I’ll dive into some of those below in the Platform section.

Virtual Conference Platform

Choosing the right platform for your virtual conference is a consequential decision for your event.

The platform drives much of your resource allocation decisions, attendee experience, speaker onboarding and more. We identified 3 main needs for our virtual conference platform:

  1. Multi-stage (or ability to gate sessions to ticket type).
  2. Make “at home” production seamless for all speakers.
  3. A quality community experience for attendees.

Virtual Conference Platforms we considered closely.

We knew we wanted to do something more than just a series of Zoom meetings. Zoom is a great tool, but did not match our goal for this conference to create a virtual conference with the spirit of a live event.

We reviewed over 50 virtual conference platform options. We realized right away that there was not a perfect solution for us. Over a few weeks, we narrowed the list down to these 5 options:

Our list focused on newer platforms, which typically feature better design and user experience.

Many of the new platforms were getting such a large amount of inquiries that we could not get a product demo (or get questions answered). Even today it’s still very difficult to schedule a demo for most of the platforms we reviewed.

Two of the platforms, Accel and Hopin, allowed you to quickly set up an account and test an event, which made our onboarding and testing much easier. Though with Hopin, you do have to pay $100 for an admin account to do that testing.

For our needs, Hopin ended up being the best fit. Here is the process we went through to ultimately decide which platform to choose.

Platform Fit For Our Virtual Conference

HeySummit is a great platform for quickly creating simple online conferences. They have fewer features than most of the solutions we reviewed, but the platform is very accessible and affordable. For our needs, HeySummit was missing the community features that would attendees to interact as well as options to feature sponsors.

Attendify is a ticketing solution and event app that we had used before. Their new virtual event solution was closest to what we wanted feature wise, but unfortunately it did not launch out of beta until after our conference dates.

RunTheWorld is very new, and looks like a strong contender in this space. Unfortunately, we were not able to get a demo or a response from their team in time to fully consider their platform. This is not a strike against them, just a reality for many of these platforms right now. They also take a 25% cut of ticket sales, the highest fee we saw. Since we reviewed them in April, they have launched more options to test out the platform for free.

Jumbo is another new platform focused on very high production quality. It’s definitely a higher end and higher priced option, but if you use Jumbo they will help your event achieve TV level production. They work with a lot of big brands and have options for actually shipping your speakers a “studio in a box.” We’ve worked with the team at Jumbo before and highly recommend them, but their platform was not 100% ready when event took place.

Accel and Hopin are very, very similar in look and feature set. The main difference we noticed was that Hopin was easier to set up and had fewer bugs during our testing.

It’s hard to compare the two platforms on price, because they price their product very differently.

Accel was a more expensive solution for our event, mainly because they were charging per attendee and per day. So the fewer days your conference is planned for, the more affordable Accel might be.

Of all the platforms we looked at Accel was the most responsive to our inquiries, getting on the phone with us several times and always responding quickly to our support chats. They also had the most features and were adding features quicker than any of the other platforms.

Hopin has a low cost option that starts at $100 a month per admin (including up to 500 attendees) and a more premium option that was quoted to us at $15,000.

With Hopin, we were able to get a test event up and running more quickly than the other platforms and their solution had fewer bugs and issues as we tested. As conference organizers, we know testing and rehearsals are critical, so ultimately we decided to go with Hopin.

Features We Would Like To See Added

There were a few features we would like to see every virtual conference platform adopt that could really improve the overall event experience for attendees and organizers.

Better Backstage Options

This is probably the biggest opportunity and yet the most technically challenging for platforms.

Many of the virtual conference platforms have a way for speakers and organizers to login, test, and video chat before going live.

What is missing is the ability to have a backstage area, while another session is live. If you have two sessions back to back, which almost every conference does, you either have dead air (to onboard the next presentation) or you have to use some type of livestreaming software for more in-depth production, like eCamm or Switcher Studio.

Comments and Community

Most virtual conference platforms have a live chat feature that works well for live community and feedback.

But there was less opportunity for threaded discussions. Adding some type of comment board or community page where organizers and attendees can start threaded discussions and ask questions would more of a networking component to events. And a good support solution.

This type of feature would also allow events to open their doors early and allow attendees to interact in useful ways to build networking and momentum leading up to an event. An alternative here is to have a separate community space using Facebook Groups, Slack, or other options.

Session Feedback

I’d like to see more stats on video engagement or session completion percentages, along with specific ratings and feedback on sessions and the event as a whole.

I’m sure some of the more technical enterprise solutions have this built in, but many of the solutions we reviewed did not.

One issue we encountered was that Hopin collected feedback from our attendees on the event as a whole (along with feedback of Hopin itself), but would not share it with us when we looked for the data and contacted their support.

Small Group Networking

One of the biggest challenges for virtual conferences is recreating that in-person networking magic. The platform that gets this right, will have a killer feature. Our vision for this would be very similar to Zoom’s breakout room feature, allowing larger events to break attendees out into smaller 10 to 20 person group discussions.

If you can do this in a way that does not require a human moderator to be involved in each group, for instructions and quality control, even better.

Our Virtual Conference Key Lessons Learned

We learned a lot from this first conference and it will heavily impact how we plan and design our next virtual conference.

1. Go Simple

Simplify your event content, networking, and ticket types. It is harder to manage complexities virtually than it is for an in-person event. At live events, you can quickly jump on the mic or mobilize team members to make changes or do quality control. Online, virtually, everything has to be even more precise and planned.

Every layer of complexity adds training and admin hours that can be better utilized elsewhere.

For instance, I recommend utilizing one ticket type or as few ticket types as possible. If you do need multiple ticket types, I would group ticket-specific content by day. If someone is paying to access to certain sessions, speakers, or networking, consider grouping all of those benefits together on the same day/time to simplify access and organization.

Panels, interviews, and pre-recorded training are your friends. Sessions that focus on discussion are a stronger organic fit for virtual conferences.

Live presentations with slides create the highest technical need and more potential challenges.

Most screenshare presentations prevent speakers from being able to respond to live chat feedback. There are ways around this, but again, they add technical complexity for you, your speakers, and/or your team.

2. Adapt Your Speaker Prep

We had very few technical challenges during our conference because we rehearsed and anticipated many issues, so there was a plan in place if X happens. But we definitely had to adapt quickly in a few moments and learned some key lessons.

We rehearsed with all of our speakers at least once before the conference. One adjustment we would make is adding a day-of or day-before rehearsal for anyone presenting slides from their computer (the most technically challenging presentation type). It’s easy for people to forget things, so we’d add a refresher rehearsal.

I also recommend creating a simple event day checklist for speakers, and ask them to print it out (or mail it to them) before they present. A sample checklist might look like this:

  1. Speaker headphones are plugged in and working (sound check).
  2. Speaker knows where the mute button is and it works.
  3. Speaker slides are open and working.
  4. Speaker is in right place/room/time.
  5. Speaker knows how and when their session starts and ends.

A checklist like this is simple and can include details specific to the platform. A checklist, combined with a rehearsal very close to their session time, should eliminate most live presentation tech issues.

For pre-recorded sessions, if your platform allows, I encourage adding a live Q&A session, and have the speaker answer questions live during the chat. This breaks the fourth wall a bit, but the end result is answering more questions for attendees.

3. Match the Programming To The Platform

If we went back to redo Social Fresh X again today, I would change how we planned the content. We designed our ideal event first and then tried to match it to a platform.

Each platform is so unique and offers varying degrees of support and technical challenges. Virtual conference organizers should decide on the platform that best fits your resource needs and broad event details first.

This might include presentation type, event length, budget, and attendee count. Then tailor your programming to fit that platform.

Making decisions about networking session details, the number of ticket types, and the number of content tracks can be decided after you pick your platform. This will allow you to limit technical challenges and reduce stress on your team during the virtual conference.

Utilize Outside Experts

For over 10 years, we’ve produced high quality conferences and we still regularly reach out for help and support when we we needed backup. Since our virtual conference, we’ve helped multiple companies walk through these decisions and planning for their own virtual conference.

Get Support: If you’d like more info on how we can support your virtual conference, please reach out to [email protected].

There are a lot of layers to building a virtual conference, and many of these decisions will be new territory for organizations. Bring in experts where possible.

A few places to consider for support:

  1. Planning: Work with someone that has produced a virtual conference before. They will know much more about the challenges you are going to face – and need to anticipate. They will foresee how small decisions can make larger impacts on the live event.
  2. Production: Understand how to get the most out of your technology and/or bring in AV professionals to help free up important time and focus for your team. The less you have to worry about slides, video, and software, the more attention you can give to event experience and engaging directly with stakeholders.
  3. Programming: The quality of presentations and speaker performances is even more important for a virtual conference. With fewer hallway conversations and live venue options to improve an experience, your stage is your conference experience. Work with professionals who can help make sure slide decks are designed well. Train your speakers and executives so they understand how to engage an audience when in an online format.
  4. Community: Just as larger conferences bring in influencers or hosts to help organize and amplify conference experiences, there are opportunities to add a layer of knowledge and support to your event through community support. Emcees and hosts can add an important lift to your attendee experience and keep things moving along smoothly for the audience.

Our virtual conference ended up reaching more people across the world than any event we’ve ever hosted before. It was well worth the time and effort.

Let us know if we can help your organization adapt to the new challenge of producing virtual conferences.


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